The Challenge of Wealth

The commonly held view is that wealth is an impediment to a meaningful spiritual life; that wealth is accompanied by necessary hubris that makes humility and godliness nearly impossible. In this view, it is the poor who, seemingly because of their poverty and need, who gravitate toward spirituality.

But is this “commonly held view” accurate? Is it more difficult for the wealthy or the one in want to experience genuine spirituality?

* * *

It is told that a rich Chasid came to his master for a blessing. Before giving it, the Rebbe asked, “What is the conduct of your household, and what table do you set from day to day?”

Eager to demonstrate his piety, he replied, “My household is conducted with great simplicity. My own meal consists of dry bread and salt.”

The Rebbe’s countenance showed his feelings about the rich man’s response. “Why do you not favor yourself with meat and wine, as becomes a man of wealth?”

Stunned, the rich man was speechless. He remained so as the Rebbe continued to berate him.

“Enough! Enough!” the rich man said, raising his arms in surrender. “I will treat myself with greater consideration and enjoy more elaborate meals.”

It was not only the wealthy Chasid who had been taken aback by the Rebbe’s behavior. When the Chasid had departed, the pupils approached the Master: “What matters it to you whether he eats bread with salt or meat with wine?”

“It matters a great deal,” the Rebbe replied. “If he enjoys good fare and his meals consist of fine delicacies, then he will understand that the poor man must have at least bread with salt. But if, being wealthy, he renounces all enjoyment of life and lives so stingily, he will believe that it is sufficient for the poor to eat stones.”

In short, he with great wealth must reap the benefits of that wealth else how will he appreciate the plight of the poor?

* * *

So then, is it a greater nisayon, a greater ordeal, to be wealthy or to be poor? The dangers of wealth are clearly evident – haughtiness, arrogance, snobbery, vanity, and egotism. It is nearly impossible to open a newspaper and not read an account making clear the boorish behavior of the rich and entitled.

By the same token, the aches and pains of poverty can hardly be overstated. Misery, hunger, want and fear; daily adversity seems to be the fate of the needy in every society. The poor must rely on others for the basic necessities of their lives. They are, moment by moment, robbed of dignity.

So, again, which is the greater nisayon? Who is the more challenged – he with readily available cuts of prime ribs prepared to his exacting demands or the poor soul in continuous dependence on God’s manna? This is not a question relevant only by the demands of the day’s political environment. Indeed, it is a Divine question, posed by God.

Soon after crossing the Red Sea, as the Jews began their long sojourn in the desert, the newly-freed slaves feared for their next day’s bread; they trembled at the thought that the next day might not find a source of water. Their response to these very powerful fears? They complained! They cried out their wish that they’d have died by God’s hand in Egypt where, at least, they “could sit by pots of meat and eat our fill of bread.”

How quickly they forgot how they’d cried to God for deliverance! Instead, they berated Moses and Aaron, “You had to bring us out to this desert, to kill the entire community by starvation.”

Faced with the test of poverty and deprivation, they fell short. God listened to their complaints and He showered them with water, quail, and manna, covered with dew. At the same time, however, He declared, “Yes, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and collect a certain portion every day, l’maan anasenu – so that I may test them, whether or not they will keep my law.”

The delivered former slaves were undoubtedly “poor”. But what kind of poverty was this, where they received what they needed at just the right cost? What does God mean when He says that with getting manna, there is a simultaneous nisayon –l’maan anasenu, “so that I may test them”? According to the Abarbanel God’s providing the manna was a chesed, not a nisayon! How can we possibly view the gift of the life-sustaining manna as a test? Certainly the opposite would seem to be true. The deprivation caused by desert travel was the test; the manna a Divine solution to the problem.

* * *

The Chatam Sofer once spent time as a house guest of a member of the Rothschild family who was not only a wealthy man but also very pious. As the great scholar was preparing to leave, he was asked by his host, “Please tell me if there is any aspect of my household which is not run according to Torah thought.” And then, to demonstrate his determination to be as pious as possible, he added, “If so, I will immediately rectify the situation.”

The Chatam Sofer pondered for a moment and then replied, “Everything that I see within your household is neged haTorah, contrary to Torah thought.”

The pious philanthropist nearly collapsed. He was aghast at this response. Before his response could cause his host any more concern, the Chatam Sofer smiled and explained, “The Torah predicts, vayishman yeshurun vayivat. When the Jewish people accrue wealth, they will rebel. Your home, however, is clearly an exception to this prophecy. You have passed the test of plenty. God grant that all those who are prosperous follow your example.”

When Reb Mendel of Kotsk was seven or eight years old, he was reported to have asked his teacher in cheder, “When the Israelites were in the desert, and they each received the exact measure of manna necessary to sustain each member of the household, not more and not less, how were they able to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah?” The teacher is reported to have remained speechless by the question.

What a test! To have everything I need, yet not being able to share. What good is having plenty – delivered by God Himself – but am left unable to give? Chesed and tzedakah are, after all, what gives us our humanity.

What a nisayon – what a test!

Some commentaries, notably the Sforno and Orach Chayim, see the test of the manna as a test of wealth. When one is poor, he has by necessity to devote most of his time to meeting his physical needs. But when one has wealth, when he possesses plenty, he has the opportunity to develop spiritually, intellectually, and religiously.

With the time-consuming burden of acquiring the physical necessities of life, the test of spirituality becomes what will one do with the time, and peace of mind wealth and comfort bestow? In the Sforno’s words, Kesheyiheye mitparnes belo tzaar – now that you are sustained without agony and hardship, what will you accomplish which you could not have accomplished had you been afflicted with hardship, poverty, and the daily concerns of parnasah?

Taking the other view, the Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and others view the test of manna as a test of those in need; the challenge of dependence, the anxieties of insecurity and the daily dependence upon a Higher Being, God. The Ramban interprets the Jews’ bickering and complaining in Beha’alothcha – “Now our souls are dried away other than our dependence on the manna” – as “that even the manna on which we live is not in our possession so that our soul can be nourished and satisfied with it; but we desire it and are dependent upon it at all times, in anticipation that it will come to us; thus we have nothing at all save our hope for manna.”

Manna only came down in the quantity required for the day, and none was to be left for the following day. They were therefore in constant worry for their next day’s food. Is it any wonder that our Sages taught, “One cannot compare a person who has bread in his basket with one who does not have bread in his basket? It takes great faith, emunoh, and bitachon to overcome the test of dependence, the anxieties of reliance. This is perhaps what led Reb Yehoshua to teach that an individual should go out and work every day and not depend on miracles, just as the Israelites gathered manna every day, and even on Friday worried about the next day’s portion, the double portion.

Yet, on the other hand, Reb Eliezer Hamodai takes the exact opposite lesson from this same manna report, that one should not be concerned for the next day’s bread, as long as there is enough for today. “Whoever has enough to eat today, and says, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ such a person is lacking faith.”

* * *

Who has the greater nisyonot, he who is wealthy or he who is poor? The simple truth is that each and every life comes with its joys and rewards, challenges and heartaches. Rich or poor, no one escapes the nisyonot of life. The Magid of Mezritsch said that the nisayon of the manna was meant to test one’s genuine and authentic faith in God. Why? Because to have been assured of one’s basic needs and sustenance without worries, concerns, and deagot and still remain faithful to God and cognizant of our dependence upon Him, is a much greater nisayon than being poor and having faith in God.

Studies have shown that once basic needs have been met, having more money, larger houses, and fancier cars do not bring greater happiness. Ultimately, the answer to the question is unique to each life. Each of us must respond based on our understanding the nisayon facing us, on our ability to deal with the very real manna God provides us.

Rather than constantly believing that “the grass is always greener” in another’s garden, we should pause and consider the blessings of our simple lives. And when we hear the siren song calling us to have, “a dollar and a dream” we might want to think long and hard about giving away a dollar in order to win five million.

Would such a winning really make us happier? Better? More fulfilled?